Thursday, June 25, 2009

‘This is Poppy. She’s my autism service dog’

Three weeks ago Jennifer Cluff and her family welcomed Poppy, a five-month-old yellow lab, into their home. The Cluffs are fostering Poppy for an organization called Autism Dog Services. Jennifer hopes that when Poppy’s close to two years, she’ll be ready to become a service dog for her son Connor, 5, who has Asperger syndrome.

I interviewed Jennifer, who lives in London, Ont., to find out about Poppy’s role.

Me: Tell us a bit about Connor.

Jennifer Cluff: He’s incredibly funny and incredibly smart, a really caring person who’s friendly and likes to be around others. He’s typical of kids with Asperger in that he has his little obsessions. He loves lego characters – especially batman – and he’ll role play things he’s seen in lego video games and then take that play into his own world where he becomes the characters. So he’s batman, I’m bat girl and the dogs are bat dogs.

Me: What are the challenges related to Asperger syndrome that you hope Poppy will address?

Jennifer Cluff: Connor has absolutely zero concept of dangerous situations. He might get so focused on something that catches his eye that he’ll run across the street in front of traffic, or bolt in a parking lot or in the mall. No matter how many times I talk to him about not talking to strangers, he doesn’t understand stranger danger the way other kids his age do. He has trouble understanding social cues and facial expressions and finds transitions stressful. If he’s working on something and the teacher says “it’s time to go to gym,” he’s going to have a melt-down if he hasn’t finished what he’s working on.

Me: How will having a service dog help?

Jennifer Cluff: Safety is a big thing. Poppy wears a vest with a belt that goes around Connor’s waist so he’s tethered to her and he also holds onto the handle on her vest. I walk behind and have the leash. If Connor was to bolt, I would give Poppy the command to stay and anchor him. The nice thing is that it gives the child a sense of independence because instead of holding their parent’s hand, they’re holding the dog.

Me: What about some of the social benefits of a service dog?

Jennifer Cluff: One of my biggest fears is bullying at school. I think the dog will bring positive attention to Connor and give him an opportunity to talk about something he enjoys. Service dogs can have a calming influence so I hope Poppy will help Connor with transitions. They can also be trained to interrupt repetitive behaviours – pawing at the child and helping them to stop. The bond that develops between kids and service dogs is unbelievable and we think that’s another huge benefit.

Me: What changes have you seen in Connor since Poppy arrived?

Jennifer Cluff: He will actually seek Poppy out to play with and go and get a toy for her. He loves to talk to people about his dog and will say “This is Poppy. She’s my autism dog. We’re fostering her.”

Me: What is involved in fostering a service dog?

Jennifer Cluff:
We make a commitment to care for the dog for 12 to 18 months, to socialize the dog and teach her basic obedience. Every two weeks we go to a class with the trainer. At about 12 to 15 months, the trainer will recall her for four to five months of intensive training. During that time, the trainer spends a lot of time working with the family and child.

Me: Once Poppy is fully trained, how would she work with Connor during the day?

Jennifer Cluff: She’ll go to school with him for the full day. The trainer will do presentations at the school so everyone understands her role and that when she’s wearing her vest, she’s not to be patted. We’ve already taken her to Connor’s karate class and it’s amazing how well the other kids accept and understand that the dog is working. When Connor comes home, Poppy will be more of a companion, although she’ll still be an extra set of eyes and hands for me, and will go with us when we go out anywhere.

Me: Are the schools receptive to service dogs?

Jennifer Cluff: I think there’s an initial fear of the unknown, and concern that this dog will disrupt the classroom. But other families tell me that once teachers see the dog in the school, trained, they realize the benefits.

Me: What does it cost to purchase a service dog?

Jennifer Cluff: It depends on the organization you work with. For us it’s about $18,000. Some local charities, such as President’s Choice Children’s Charity, have been very supportive to families, and in some cases have fully funded service dogs. As a family we are also running some small fundraisers and have a website.


Service dogs such as Poppy really do make a difference in the lives of those they serve. For a little added inspiration, you might like to check out this video -- -- it's the story of one woman's "aha moment" that led her to start an organization to train service dogs. It's quite a success story, and I think you'll enjoy it. By the way, the site was created by Mutual of Omaha to highlight good works, inspirational stories, and "aha moments" of all kinds. Hope you give it a look.


Hi Jack - thanks for posting that video... what a great story. Always nice when people are able to do what they really want to do... and are best suited!! And for such a great cause!
All the best,
Jennifer Cluff
(from the blog Connor's Mom & Poppy's foster Mom)